Climate emergency: a step change must be made NOW – letter to the editor

Every day on the television news and in the newspapers we see huge parts of the world on fire and other parts submerged beneath exceptional flooding. The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes it clear that this is undeniably the result of global warming caused by human activity. This report goes on to say that total collapse of our habitable earth can only be avoided if we take action now; that this action must be represented by a step change in human behaviour – essentially one to be made by western economies.

One hundred years ago life for everyone was very different. Britain, like all developed countries, was criss-crossed with public transport networks. This was mainly by train and bus or tram; most freight was also moved by rail. The majority of people lived and worked in towns and cities and could get to work on foot, bike or by public transport. For those who lived out of town even the smallest village had several shops accessible on foot. Since then, and driven by economics, we have seen the transformation of almost every aspect of normal life to one dictated by the use of personal motor vehicles, with the inevitable consequences for CO₂production.

Over the last 50 years or so the size and weight of the average car have increased considerably. In road accidents the smaller car always came off worse when in a collision with a large vehicle. The seemingly sensible short-term solution led to legislation essentially forcing cars to be made heavier and larger rather than the government trying to control the maximum size of vehicles. The fastest growing car sector, here and more markedly in the USA, is for large SUVs with consequent ‘greenhouse gas creep’. In many towns and cities we see the familiar rush-hour situation of long queues of single-occupant vehicles moving forward one car length at a time at walking pace. Clearly not the arrangement that would have been envisaged as an ideal way of moving a working population if long-term planning had been possible.

My local supermarket filling station has over 20 pumps. Each driver can refuel for a range of about 500 miles in about four minutes. Most times that I visit I am lucky to find a pump free without waiting. Glib assurances by politicians that, after 2030, we will be driving vehicles with carbon-free exhausts just do not stand up to even the most casual analysis. To replicate the refuelling system with enough electric charging points on the scale required, even in ten years, is an unrealistic dream. Even if it were possible to replace that queue of one-and-a-half-tonne cars with a similar queue of two-tonne electric cars, this is clearly not the ideal solution to the emergency that confronts us.

What is required, as stated in the IPCC report, is a complete step change in the way that society is organised. This is an immense challenge and trite promises and vague plans for the future from politicians do not even begin to face up to the problem. It is clear that huge changes are going to cost! Public transport systems have to be organised not, as at present, to make money for the operators but to provide a service for the travelling needs of the population. The public will not be prepared to forego their cars until economic measures by the government mean that change is financially favourable. Until it is cheaper to replace the gas boiler with a carbon-free heating system; until it is cheaper, and at least almost as convenient, to travel by foot, bike or public transport than it is to take the car, most people will not change.

Scientific advances in battery technology, carbon-free electricity generation, green hydrogen production and carbon-free methods of producing materials like steel or cement will certainly help, but massive investment in research is essential. We have seen with the Covid-19 vaccine that research can be accelerated when the situation is urgent enough. Most importantly, this investment must happen now. Comments such as ‘we promised in our manifesto that we would not increase income tax or National Insurance rates’ or ‘we cannot afford it’ will no longer wash.

The cost to all of us will be large and those who simply cannot afford any increase must be protected. But ask those in Greece, Italy, Western Canada or the USA who have lost lifetime assets, and possibly friends and family to wildfires how much not changing costs. Ask those in Germany, Belgium, China, India and elsewhere how much it costs when your home, village or town is submerged in flood water or washed away, and it becomes clear that this is a cost we must all face up to, and face up to it now.     

Richard Ambrose